With Deadline nearing, Cubs have work to do in second half

July 13th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Jordan Bastian’s Cubs Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

CHICAGO -- The All-Star Game is in the rearview mirror, the second half is approaching fast and the Cubs have plenty of work cut out for them if the team wants to push its way back into the October picture and avoid another Trade Deadline defined by selling.

Let’s take a brief look back and a glimpse at the weeks ahead:

What we learned in the first half
After two years of rebuilding, the Cubs infused the 2023 roster with veteran free agents with the goal of fielding a more competitive team. Led by All-Stars and Justin Steele, the rotation (whose 4.02 ERA ranks fourth in the National League) has been solid. The bullpen weathered a rough start and has been the second-best group in the NL by ERA (2.95) since the start of June. 

Anchored by Dansby Swanson and Nico Hoerner up the middle, the defense has been more than reliable. And the underlying numbers -- the Cubs are the only NL Central team with a positive run differential (+26) -- indicate that the team should be better than its record. On the offensive side, the power has been lacking (.396 slugging percentage), leaving plenty of room for improvement in the second half.

Likely Trade Deadline strategy
The Cubs find themselves in a kind of gray area when it comes to picking a buy or sell lane for the Deadline. At 42-47, Chicago’s record is not where the club hoped to be at the break. That said, the Cubs aren’t entirely out of the postseason conversation (6 1/2 games back in the Wild Card race and seven in the division). The next few weeks before the Deadline will be critical to how the Cubs react. They have some veteran trade chips, with Stroman and topping the list. If the Cubs do want to add, the biggest needs would be offensive power (the corner infield spots being the best avenue) and an impact arm in the bullpen.

Key player: CF Cody Bellinger
It is too simplistic to say, “As Belli goes, the Cubs go,” but the offense has worked and looked so much better when the center fielder has been locked in. The Cubs got off to a strong start in April, when Bellinger turned in a .976 OPS and had seven homers. A left knee injury cost him time between May and June, and when he did play he saw his power sapped (no homers in 102 plate appearances in those months). Bellinger has been on a strong run again in July, and solid play from him could not only help the Cubs in the standings, but in turn influence the Trade Deadline strategy.

Prospect to watch: RHP
Palencia (MLB Pipeline’s No. 13 Cubs prospect) was recently promoted after a midseason transition to the bullpen in the Minors. The 23-year-old righty made a strong first impression, logging three shutout frames in his first two outings and reaching at least 100 mph five times (already tied for the most this year by a Cubs pitcher). Palencia -- acquired from the A’s in the 2021 deal for lefty Andrew Chafin -- balances his high-octane fastballs with a sharp slider and has more pitches in his arsenal given his background as a starter. He has the potential to grow into a weapon for a Chicago bullpen that has started to find stability in its relief corps.